So lush is the detail in Michael Chabon’s brilliant The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, so developed the back-story, the alternative history, that it’s the rare short novel that feels long – like you want to live in its dark and distinct precincts a little longer.
Chabon has described the book as an ode to Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett, and Ross Macdonald, and it continues his long fascination with detectives who descend from the lineage of Sherlock Holmes. A writer of short stories, essays and anthologies, Chabon has produced one other novel of massive creation – the wonderful The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, published in 2000. Like The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, it created a world of characters and places, and a code – or index – to what was happening: an incredibly deep encyclopedia of small chapters, clippings of the “past,” timelines, and people.
His latest work tops that achievement; it feels like Chabon wrote many thousands of pages of extra material and then synthesized it all to a tight crime drama featuring a small circle of dark and damaged characters – like he wrote big, boiled some water, and published the infusion.
The tea drinks well. Of course, The Yiddish Policemen’s Union revolves around an imagination-grabbing premise. A swath of Alaska has been set aside as the Jewish homeland, with its capital in the former frontier town of Sitka. The book is filled with Yiddish, and you’ll acquire more of a working knowledge of that evocative tongue by reading it. And at the center is a detective. A great failed, jaded, sad and sickly shadow of a Jewish dick.